Three seated figures made from plywood, on each figure a plant is growing. Painted on the gallery wall behind are human-animal figures transforming into plants.

Survey II

Saelia Aparicio, 'three dead astronauts' (2021). Photo: Jules Lister, 2022.

As far as endurance tests go, waiting for a cake to get crushed by a slab of concrete might be one of the more niche. In a strangely nail-biting scene (‘Pancake’ 2021), Rebecca Moss teeters with a paving slab, building up agonising levels of tension until at last she lets it come crashing to the ground. Another sequence sees her attach her mouth to a home-made wire contraption, yanking her grin so wide it seems the flesh will tear (‘Home Improvement’, 2021). The strain might be enough to have you hotfooting it back out of the gallery, except that it’s delivered with a wryness and whimsicality that mercifully softens the impact (for us, if not the cake).

Moss is one of ten early-career artists featured in Jerwood Arts Survey II, a touring exhibition that features a cross section of UK art, now drawing to a close at Site Gallery. Since each was nominated by a different established artist, the content of the show is disparate and wide-ranging, from the claustrophobia of domestic spaces to broader geopolitical concerns.

In ‘three dead astronauts’ (2021) Saelia Aparacio rewrites the whole pecking order of the planet. Here nature is the antagonist, with three ‘invasive’ plant species comfortably taking root in human-shaped husks. Despite being removed from their habitat the seedlings thrive, while the defeated ‘astronauts’ whose bodies they occupy stare blankly outward. An accompanying wall painting depicts humans fleeing in terror while plants scurry gleefully along in their wake. Part Edenic nightmare, part sci-fi meltdown, the piece prompts us to consider what our own species has unleashed by casually realigning ecologies, and how we might fare if nature were to stage a hostile takeover. 

Back on more familiar soil, Tako Taal’s film ‘Departures’ (2021) reflects on migration and family, using footage of a traditional Gambian blanket alongside recordings of her uncles reciting her late father’s poetry. The intimacy is heightened by close-ups of the fabric, focusing on the wear and tear amassed over a lifetime ‒ though like Taal’s relatives, it remains tightly-knit. There’s a similarly elegiac note to Tereza Červeňová’s ‘With and For’ (2020-21), featuring 35mm clips of the artist’s loved ones alongside their portraits. These vignettes induce heavy nostalgia: even while we know nothing of the people being depicted, it’s a reminder of how fleeting personal connections can be, despite our best attempts to immortalise them. 

Two white handkerchiefs pinned to the wall. One handkerchief embroidered with the word 'WYPIERDALAĆ' in black thread. The other embroidered with a map of the UK in blue thread, and the phrase 'No Man is an Island' in yellow.
Katarzyna Perlak, ‘Bated Breaths’, (2020). Photo: Jules Lister, 2022.

Textiles and craftsmanship are prominent throughout Survey II, with a selection of works that are subversive even while being decorative. Katarzyna Perlak’s series of handkerchiefs, ‘Bated Breaths’ (2021), render commonplace English and Polish expressions into beautiful, intricate embroidery: from proverbs, nursery rhymes and slogans to saltier exclamations such as “WYPIERDALAĆ!” (“Piss off!”). They hint at the idiosyncratic formulation of language, and how lone phrases can pinpoint specific shared memories within communities. They also carry potential for radical expression: like the red lightning bolt adopted by Poland’s pro-choice movement, and the phrase “NO WAR” in Russian. Handkerchiefs, after all, can be a quiet mode of dissent, a private rebellion concealed within your pocket.

Questions of public and private dissent also appear in Angharad Williams’ work ‘The security dilemma’ (2021), which consists of three straw dolls replicating the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ motif. Admittedly, the work’s ambiguity left me unsure if I’d grasped it at all: the dolls pinned at the entrance gave the space a folksy, rustic air that felt unexpected. Williams researched the history of pacifism for the piece, as well as secrecy pledges adopted by workers who manufactured the first nuclear weapons. Are the dolls, then, a criticism of people’s readiness to turn a blind eye when violations are carried out in plain sight? Or do they urge us not to be complicit? Deciding to ‘see no evil’ might, after all, mean that evil can be carried out without opposition, and Williams doesn’t set out to neatly resolve this quandary for us. 

Elsewhere, Sadé Mica moves away from collective consciousness to deconstruct their own form. ‘Parts’ (2021) is a self-portrait made of disconnected segments of upholstery, attached to the gallery wall in jigsaw-like formation. It’s up to the viewer to reconstitute the distinct pieces into a single, joyful whole, and to experience the artist’s unconstrained presence, as their body comfortably inhabits the exhibition space. Likewise Shenece Oretha’s piece ‘Conspiracy: After Jeanne Lee’ (2021) makes its presence felt softly, meditatively, with two speakers entwined together as if in intimate conversation, while a placid chorus of humming pours at intervals into the room.

Nicolaas van de Lande’s occupation of the gallery is far from placid. ‘A Being Able to Change its Form’ (2021) draws on the artist’s memories of staying in abandoned corporate spaces as a property guardian. Familiar forms take on a sinister aspect; a door is coated in fuzz, pillows sag with mysterious spillages and unidentifiable objects writhe sickeningly in the imagination. With miniature mattresses stacked on layer upon layer of tins, it’s a struggle to reconcile a sense of scale: these are elements that should make up a domestic space, but the context renders them alienating and eerie, a symptom of the watchful unease that comes with existing in temporary lodgings. 

Lastly, and perhaps most appropriately for a pandemic, Cinzia Mutigli’s film features her curled up in bed in a series of sequinned outfits, fending off anxiety. ‘I’ve Danced at Parties’ (2021) talks us through the artist’s self-editing process, treating each social interaction as a performance, with the stigma of failure and fluffing lines never far away. For Mutigli, preparing small talk is like learning choreography: it falls in and out of sync and some ‘papering over my cracked performance’ may be required. But in the end, thanks to Mutigli’s raw honesty and deadpan delivery, the ‘gory detail’ she dreads turns out to be the showpiece.

The curators have described the experience of programming Survey II as ‘a stutter’; fourteen months of grasping for the right words over email until the show became so abstract they could hardly picture how everything would sit together. It was as if all the artists had been made to undergo a long rehearsal, with concepts being tested out, scripts torn up, the same boards trodden over again and again until something clicked. But despite the long wait and all the different ground covered, this is a production in which each of the distinct voices can at last be clearly heard.

Survey II is at Site Gallery, 12 March – 5 June 2022. Upcoming events include Conspirators: Listening Session with Shenece Oretha, 26 May 2022, 6pm–7:30pm and Family Friendly Workshop: Make Your Own Rube Goldberg Machine, 28 May 2022, 11am–2pm.

Orla Foster is a writer based in Sheffield.

This review is supported by Site Gallery.

Published 19.05.2022 by Eloise Bennett in Reviews

1,118 words